On July 22nd, 2007, my Grandfather would have turned 102. He died in 2002, just shy of turning 97. He was an Orthodox Rabbi, a husband of 67 years, a father to two children, a grandfather of five, and a New York Mets fan.
I cannot recall the Mets ever losing on his birthday. Sometimes the games would run 14 to 16 innings, and end after midnight, so it did not count as a birthday loss.
Given that Jews are not supposed to watch television on Saturdays due to the commandment of honoring the Sabbath, it would be worse for an Orthodox Rabbi to watch it. However, the rule only says the television cannot be turned on or off. If it is already on it can be watched. My job as the heretic grandson would be to trip over the table and have my nose turn on the television. This was especially difficult given that his old television had a knob.
My grandmother, who is still a spry 99 year old woman as of this column, would walk in the room, and wonder why the television was on during the Sabbath. I would happily fall on my sword, she would give me the “Eric, you know better!” speech, and then Grandpa and I would go back to watching the game since we could not very well violate the Sabbath twice by turning it off. This of course did not count other Sabbath violations that involved adjusting the volume control.
We would also eat the candy and potato chips that Grandpa was not supposed to have because it was bad for him. We thought we were smart, but Grandma knew what was going on. She would say, “Eric, he should not violate the Sabbath. God would not like that.” I would respond by saying, “Grandma, God has already punished him many times over. He is a Mets fan.” My grandmother would think about this for a few moments, and grudgingly acknowledge that while my argument was not sound theologically, it would be good enough for the congregants in his synagogue, in addition to every other long suffering Mets fan. I used to think that “long suffering” was the first name of any Mets fan because those words always preceded the name of the team.
Normally he preached personal responsibility during his sermons, but the World Series winning 1986 Mets could do no wrong. Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were just good kids who needed some love. Darryl Strawberry could have killed 20 people and my grandfather would have said, “Straw is confused. He is just a good kid who needs some love.”
Late in his life when he was confined to a nursing home, I would always test his mind by asking him “the baseball question.” Even though he could not speak at times, I would ask if his favorite team was the Yankees. He would shake his head no. I would ask about the Red Sox, and he would again move his head from side to side. I would ask him if he liked the Mets, and he would shake his head yes up and down.
In the 21st century Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were playing for the Yankees. Grandpa never believed this. When I pointed out their legal troubles, he responded, “Are you reading me headlines from 20 years ago?” Since he never acknowledged their playing for the Yankees, they remained good kids who needed love.
My grandfather never found out that I had no interest whatsoever in baseball. I find it to be a boring game where nothing ever happens of consequence. Yet I still remember watching a couple games with him. One game between the Mets and the Phillies stood out. The Mets went ahead 3-1, and my grandfather responded, “Ruthven (Dick Ruthven, the Phillies pitcher) is tiring.” He was pulled after 7 innings. I never understood why you would pull somebody. Why not let them work their way out of it? In the 8th inning the Phillies closed to 3-2. I was shocked when Gooden did not come back to pitch the 9th inning. The Mets won, as their closer held on. I was thrilled the Mets won, but my grandfather understood that it was a long season. “Baseball, like life, is not a sprint. It is a marathon.”
I went to Dodgers Stadium today to watch the Dodgers play the Mets. The Dodgers, classy organization that they are, have various games reserved for many ethnic communities. Today was for the Jewish community, and kosher hot dogs were brought in for the game. As somebody who still has no interest in baseball, this was a day about being with my friends in my community, as well as for scoping out Jewish girls (This always pleased Grandpa, who, when heard of my pursuing the ladies, said “That’s my boy.”).
The game bored me to tears for most of the game, with the Dodgers leading the Mets in a game that I did not expect to care about in any way by a score of 4-2. Then I looked up to the sky, and I saw him smiling down. He was watching the game. His birthday was approaching. The Mets scored a run in the 8th inning, cutting the gap to 4-3.
In the 9th inning, a routine fly ball that should have ended the game was dropped, a miracle error I had not seen since 1986, when the Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. This dropped ball led to the Mets tying the game 4-4.
I kept looking up to the sky, and he was still there. In the top of the 10th inning, the Mets took a 5-4 lead. The bottom of the 10th was nerve wracking. A sport I had no interest in had me riveted. I pumped my fist after each out, and pointed towards the sky. With the Dodgers in striking distance, the last batter went down strike 3. I pumped my fists in celebration, pointed both arms toward the sky, and I think I saw Grandpa smile a big smile. It could have been exhaustion or dehydration, but I know he was there.
I cannot promise to find baseball interesting on a long term level. I certainly will not watch the game on television. I am too young to die, especially a slow coma induced death.
However, every July 22nd, I will make an effort to check the scores. I cannot wait to read the paper for July 22, 2007. Mets 5, Dodgers 4, in 10 innings.
I love you Grandpa. Happy Birthday. I hope they have baseball in Heaven. Keep watching over our family. I would have saved the paper for you, but that will not be necessary. You saw it for yourself. Like when I was a kid, I enjoyed watching the game with you.